Sony Shifts Strategy to Support MP3 Files

In a major strategic reversal to help it compete with Appleis iPod and iPod mini, Sony Corp. said Wednesday it plans to add support for MP3 music files to some of its portable music players.

Though some of its CD Walkmans and Clie line of handhelds presently play MP3 files, Sony has been criticized as of late for not offering support for the most used format among consumers. The shift is being seen by industry watchers as a sign Sony recognizes it isnit meeting the demands of consumers and as a result is possibly feeling the effects of slow sales of its portable music players. Sony does not rank among the top five companies in market share for digital audio players.

The shift to support the widely used MP3 music format would end Sonyis long-standing insistence on its proprietary format, called Atrac. It also better positions the electronics giant against rivals such as Apple whose portable players support both MP3s and other file formats.

"We want to push Atrac on our music download services and remain convinced that it is the best format on the market," a source close to Sony told ZDNet France on Wednesday. "But it is clear that the industry benchmark is Appleis iPod, which is compatible with MP3."

Sony also plans to release some new flash-based players with both MP3 and Atrac playback as early as this year in Europe. As for North American customers, a Sony spokesperson would not committ to a time frame for MP3 support. The company is also working to create software upgrades so owners of current models could play their songs in the MP3 format.

Sony would not committ to adding MP3 support to its hard drive-based players, but said it is exploring the possibility. Sonyis newest hard drive-based player, the NW-HD1, features a 1.8-inch 20 gigabyte hard drive with up to 30 hours playback for $399.95.